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I STARED AT my reflection in the interrogation room's two-way mirror, not caring at all who might be staring back. I looked like hell: eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, stubble giving my face an unwashed look, hair sticking straight out above my right ear, pillow hair. I was wearing a sweatshirt that proclaimed the Minnesota Twins' victory in the 1987 World Series, blue jeans and white Nikes, no socks. Still, it could be worse. I could be wearing the blue-striped shorts the cops found me in when they busted down my door at 6:00 in the A.M. Instead, they let me dress before hustling me out of the house and into a squad. I thought of grabbing my drinking jacket—my blue nylon windbreaker with POLICE spelled out on the back in huge white letters—but I doubted the detectives would appreciate the irony.
One of the detectives was parked in a metal chair, leaning back against the wall just to the right of the mirror, watching me from under heavy eyebrows while trying to appear menacing. His name was Casper and he was bald and pale like the ghost. He did not speak, had not spoken since he and his partner installed me in the interrogation room. I watched him watch me until he folded his arms across his chest and sighed heavily.
"Not bad," I told him and laughed. I had used the same technique myself, often in that same room, letting Anne Scalasi question the suspect while I lurked behind her. She was the friendly, compassionate, understanding big sister. I was the Prince of Darkness. We were pretty good, she and I. We had a ninety-eight percent clearance rate when we worked Homicide together. Conviction rate? Well, we could only catch them. We couldn't help it if courts let them go.
I was still chuckling when Casper's partner entered the room carrying a file folder. His name was Martin McGaney and in direct contrast to his partner, he was tall and black with a mustache and hair cut short. He glanced at Casper, who continued to stare, and then back at me. McGaney was relatively new to Homicide; he had filled the slot that opened when Annie was promoted. Casper was a six-year veteran of the division, yet McGaney was already acknowledged as the better investigator. When I first met him, his rookielike enthusiasm and undisguised adoration for his boss were almost laughable. He had settled down nicely since then.
"You know your rights," McGaney reminded me with a practiced scowl.
"Anne Scalasi," I said.
"Lieutenant Scalasi is far too busy to hold the hand of every suspect we bring in for questioning."
"Did she say that?"
McGaney did not answer.
I looked at the mirror, tried to look beyond it. She was back there, watching. I could feel her. And for the first time since the detectives wound the cuffs around my wrists, I was frightened. Anne Scalasi was the highest ranking female officer in the St. Paul Police Department, the newly promoted commander of the Homicide unit. She was also my best friend. When I was lying flat on my back in a hospital room a couple months ago, several pounds of bandages wrapped around my head, she kept a vigil at my bedside, holding my hand like a lover. Later, members of the staff would comment on how beautiful my girl was. Only she wasn't my girl. She belonged to a cop who worked the Midway District and to three kids who seemed much too old to be hers. Still, I expected her to come to my aid. The fact that she didn't could mean only one thing: I was in deep shit.
"So, Taylor, tell me," McGaney said. "Where were you Saturday night?"
"I was holding up a liquor store in Nordeast Minneapolis."
That caused Casper to push away from the wall, the front legs of his chair thudding heavily when they hit the floor. "Smart ass," he said between clenched teeth.
"Check it out," I told him. "I'll bet you fifty bucks someone robbed a liquor store in Nordeast Minneapolis Saturday night."
McGaney glanced at the mirror and then back at me. He smiled. "You amuse me, Taylor."
"Hey, if I can bring a little sunshine ..."
"Where were you Saturday night?" McGaney repeated.
"Let's cut to the chase, fellas," I said. "First you tell me what happened Saturday night and then I'll decide if I'll tell you where I was."
"We ask the questions," Casper told me.
"Hey, pal, don't mess with me. I've been to the circus before."
A few moments of silence passed while we all thought it over. Finally, McGaney asked, "John Brown, remember him?"
"When was the last time you saw him?"
"At his sentencing."
"You said you were going to get him when he got out."
"No, I didn't."
McGaney read from the file he opened in front of him: "Your exact words were, 'It doesn't matter, six years or sixty. I'm a patient man.'"
I had to shrug at that. It sounded like something I might have said.
"Brown was released from Stillwater a while back after doing four of six for criminal vehicular homicide."
"You didn't know?"
"I haven't been keeping track."
"Bullshit," Casper said. "Man drives drunk, kills your wife and kid, you vow vengeance in fucking open court and now you say you just forgot about it?"
"I didn't forget about it. I just decided life was too short to spend it waiting to murder the guy."
"You carry a nine-millimeter, don't you?" McGaney asked. "A Beretta?"
"Ha!" Casper snorted. He was getting to be a real chatterbox.
"I haven't carried for a couple months; I intend to let my gun permit lapse."
McGaney thought about it. "Shooting those guys, going to the hospital yourself, it must have messed you up pretty good," he said.
I turned my head away at the reference. Yeah, I was messed up. I was also angry, frustrated, embarrassed and more than a little ashamed of myself. But I did not want the cops to see any of that.
"Where were you around midnight Saturday?" McGaney repeated.
"Are we back to that?" I asked.
"Let's bust 'im," Casper urged, continuing to play his part.
"We don't need a charge, smart mouth. We can hold you for a free thirty-six."
"Gee, a day and a half in county. How will I ever stand the strain?"
McGaney studied me for a moment and then said, "At midnight Saturday a person or persons unknown shot John Brown at close range with a nine."
"In one ear and out the other," Casper added.
"He was sitting behind the wheel of a four-by-four in the parking lot of a strip mall on West Seventh Street," McGaney finished.
News of bloody murder doesn't usually faze me. I've seen too much of it. Yet, I admit to being shook over Brown's death. For some reason I expected the sonuvabitch to live forever.
McGaney leaned in close. "Now, Taylor, you will tell me where you were or I will put you in a cell and by the time you get out, I'll have your license for obstruction."
He probably could, too. The Department of Public Safety, which regulates private investigators in Minnesota, is always happy to accommodate local constabularies. However, telling the truth was going to be tricky. Between 7:30 Saturday night and 4:15 Sunday morning, I was losing twelve hundred and fifty-five of someone else's dollars playing Texas Hold 'Em in a hotel suite in downtown Minneapolis. I'd been hired by a bookie named Randy who lost six thousand bucks in the poker game the week before. Six K wasn't much to Randy; it was the principle of the thing, he kept telling me. He was convinced there was a mechanic working the game but he didn't know who. He hired and staked me to find out. Twelve players sat in and left during the evening. Most of them were occasional players, guys with a few extra dollars in their jeans and a Steve McQueen attitude. A few were hustlers, a couple were professionals. None of them were likely to admit to a cop that they were gambling—gambling is illegal, after all. Well, maybe one would ...
"Heather Schrotenboer," I said.
"She's a student at the University of Minnesota; she's working toward a master's degree in psychology. I was in a hotel suite with her from about eight until four in the morning."
"Discussing the conflicts between Jung and Freudian theory, no doubt," Casper said.
"Are they in conflict?"
"You were with her the entire evening?" McGaney asked.
"Isn't it, though. Almost like I had it planned."
McGaney abruptly left the room. I watched him leave, averting my eyes from the mirror, embarrassed by what Anne probably thought of my confession.
"I thought shrinks used a couch," Casper said.
"We had a couch," I replied, feeding his assumption.
When McGaney returned just minutes later, he surprised me by saying I was free to go. "Ms. Schrotenboer confirmed your alibi," he said. Why would he take her word for it, I wondered. Especially over the telephone.
"What the hell ...?"
"Beat it," Casper added.
"Don't leave town," McGaney warned.
"Don't leave town?" It was a stupid thing to say and only TV cops say it. Legally, I could go anywhere I pleased and McGaney certainly knew it. No, it wasn't a warning. He was trying to tell me something. But what? He gave me a hint as I brushed past him.
"And I expect you to call when you learn more about Brown's murder."
He didn't say "if." He said "when."
I hailed a cab on Minnesota Street and gave the driver directions to my house in Roseville. The driver was Laotian—after California, we have the largest Hmong community in America—and he drove ten miles over the speed limit with two fingers on the wheel, all the while assessing Sunday's Vikings loss. "Football? You call that football? I don't call that football," he kept repeating in a thick, Southeast Asian accent.
While he rambled, I tried to reason it out. The cops go to all the trouble of dragging me to the station at the crack of dawn and accuse me of murder just to release me a short time later on the say-so of a woman they spoke to on the telephone? Something else: Cops don't like it when private investigators become involved in ongoing criminal investigations; hell, they don't like private investigators, period. So, why did McGaney all but order me to investigate John Brown's murder? And where was Anne Scalasi? There was an odor to this. It smelled like ...
"Shit," the driver said. "The Vikings haven't been worth shit since Bud Grant retired."
"How long have you been following the Vikes?" I asked the driver when he pulled onto the horseshoe driveway that curved in front of my house.
"Seventeen years," he answered. "Since moving here from Muong Son."
I gave him a nice tip but no sympathy. The Vikings have been breaking my heart for a lot longer.
I stood naked in front of the mirror, dripping water all over my bathroom's linoleum floor, noting with distress my thinning hair and wondering how much longer it would hide the scar above my right ear. Like most men, I'm terrified at the prospect of growing bald. I can see myself years from now in a scene from a Three Stooges short: I'm wearing a toupee, Curly points at it and screams, Larry knocks it off and Moe shoots it.
The telephone rang and grabbing a towel I answered it in my bedroom, half expecting to hear Anne Scalasi's voice. Wrong. It was Heather Schrotenboer.
"Are you all right, Taylor?"
"Fine. How 'bout yourself?"
"I got a call from the police ..."
"They wanted to know if I was with you Saturday night. I said I was, but I didn't mention anything about the game. They didn't ask about the game, so I didn't say. They just asked if I spent the night with you in a hotel. I said I did."
"You did good."
"They probably got the wrong impression."
"Are you in trouble?"
Heather was small and blond and although she was twenty-four, she looked like a high school girl. When I met her she was wearing a blue cap that said TOP GUN and smoking long, thin, shiny cigars. When I asked her why she was in a hotel room filled only with men playing what is largely a man's game, she flashed an elfin smile and said, "Field research."
"Why did you need an alibi?" she asked over the telephone.
"It's a long story," I told her.
"I'd like to hear it. I have a class in fifteen minutes but could I come over tonight and talk?"
"Something like that," she answered.
Water dribbled down my bare legs and soaked the carpet under my feet. I tightened the bath towel around my waist and said, "Come on over." I gave Heather my address and a few simple directions.
"I knew you were a dangerous man when we met," she said and chuckled.
"Yeah," I told her. "You better be careful."CHAPTER 2
I FOUND A meter with twenty minutes left on it near the public library and walked the two blocks to the Ramsey County courthouse in downtown St. Paul. I was looking for Cynthia Grey. Grey had represented John Brown four years ago. Since then she had become one of the best-known defenders of drunk drivers in Minnesota, often appearing on local talk shows to trash our DWI laws. I found her number among the eleven thousand, two hundred and twenty-one listings of attorneys in the Minneapolis and St. Paul telephone books. Her secretary said she was at the courthouse. It was Monday morning; all the weekend drunks were entering their pleas.
News of John Brown's tragic demise rattled me, but it didn't exactly break my heart and I had no real interest in finding his killer except that the St. Paul Police Department seemed anxious that I do so. For that reason I decided to give it a day or two. Besides, except for my chore for Randy, I was between jobs. I had just helped an insurance company catch a ring of crib burglars that specialized in antiques. The thieves targeted their victims by reading obituaries in the newspapers—they would call during the funerals and if no one answered, go burglarize the house. They would then take the antiques and sell them at flea markets across the Midwest. Armed with a list of stolen items, I'd haunted the markets in Iowa until I came across a dealer who admitted to buying some of the merchandise. With his help, I backtracked the burglars to Minneapolis. There were four of them and they were all now under indictment in U.S. District Court in Des Moines, charged with about two dozen counts of interstate transportation of stolen property. One of the victims whose heirlooms were actually recovered, an elderly woman with clear blue eyes, sent me a gross of chocolate chip cookies in gratitude. They were pretty good, too; I've been living off them for nearly a week now.
The courthouse, which also houses St. Paul's city hall, was built in 1932 and has been in a constant state of disrepair ever since. I waited outside the revolving glass door as a team of workers sporting white hard hats came out of the building, looked up, then glanced at a blueprint that one of them unrolled like an ancient scroll. Across the street, a man wearing a blue ski jacket with red lining watched us over the top of a newspaper.
I found Cynthia Grey on the eighth floor, just outside the courtroom where citizens arrested for driving while intoxicated made their initial appearance. She smiled as she accepted the enthusiastic thanks of one of her clients. Her smile had all the sincerity of a beauty pageant contestant. I stood about twenty feet away on the other side of the corridor, arms folded, and waited.
"Don't forget, Tony," she interrupted him at last. "We have a deal."
"Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely, no problem," Tony told her, still shaking her hand.
Cynthia fished a white business card from the pocket of her jacket and handed it to him. He took it reluctantly. "This is the name of the woman who runs the treatment center," Cynthia said. "She's expecting you to call. So am I."
"I will, I will, I promise," Tony said.
"If you don't call her, don't ever call me again. And, hey. Next time take a cab."
"Oh, yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Miss Grey. No kidding. Thanks a lot."
Tony turned and headed for the elevators, shoving the card into his pocket as he went. Cynthia watched him go. She sighed deeply.
Excerpted from Penance by David Housewright. Copyright © 1995 David Housewright. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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